2021 is a landmark year as we celebrate 5 centuries of cattle culture in North America. The animals first arrived on the continent in 1521, when Gregorio de Villalobos, viceroy of New Spain, rebelled against Spanish law prohibiting cattle trading in Mexico. He acquired six Spanish cows and a bull from what we now know as the Dominican Republic, and brought them to Mexico.
Remarkably, we still have breeds descended from these first arrivals and others that followed shortly thereafter. They’ve changed little over centuries of adaptation to some of the harshest living conditions known for cattle, such as the wet, hot environment of the Deep South, and the dry, hot lands of the Midwest and Mexico. Most of these breeds are highly endangered, but they’re slowly making a comeback as producers realize the value of these rugged survivors.
Florida was one of the first great cattle producers on the continent, and the Florida Cracker breed was the start of North America’s large-scale cattle culture. These cattle handle heat well, making the Florida Cracker the dominant breed in the region for centuries, until the heat-tolerant Zebu arrived in 1906. Later, as effective worming medications were developed, some of the larger and “improved” European breeds became prominent in the South. Florida Cracker cattle were crossbred with these European breeds until their numbers dwindled nearly to extinction. Thankfully, a handful of families with long cattle-raising histories refused to give up, and the Florida Crackers we have today are a result of their dedication. In the late 20th century, the state of Florida recognized the value of the breed as a living part of history, and took steps to conserve and manage the cattle within protected state herds.
The Texas Longhorn needs little introduction, but this breed is often misunderstood because of the rise of modern Longhorns. These modern hybrids captivate people with their exceptionally wide horn spreads. Often referred to as “Wronghorns” by traditional Longhorn breeders, these modern cattle are crosses of the original Longhorns with other large-horned breeds, such as the Ankole-Watusi or the English Longhorn. The historic Texas Longhorn is of Iberian origin, and these cattle are still the useful, rough-and-tumble breed we know from history. They can begin calving at 2 years of age, and can produce a calf every year well into their 20s.
According to historians, Texas Longhorn cattle drives following the Civil War accounted for one of the largest human-caused animal migrations in history. Now, true Texas Longhorns are critically endangered, and they’re in great need of next-generation breeders. The Cattlemen’s Texas Longhorn Registry manages much of the breed’s conservation. The organization works to ensure every animal is DNA-tested and proven to be of historic stock.
Other European cattle breeds arrived in the Americas not long after Spanish cattle. One of the first imports was in 1623, when Devon cattle came to New England with early settlers. These red cattle were practical animals from southwest England, a popular place of departure for early colonists. These cattle provided lots of meat, and their milk was valued, especially for the production of Devonshire clotted cream. To this day, they’re known as the “Cadillac of working oxen,” because their naturally fast gait enables a skilled ox drover to plough more land in a shorter period of time.
The livestock conservation movement in the United States, including The Livestock Conservancy itself, owes its very existence to the Milking Devon. Just prior to the United States Bicentennial celebrations of 1976, a number of living history museums in New England decided to exhibit traditional breeds of livestock that were historically significant to early colonists. In New England, none was more crucially important than the tri-purpose traditional Devon, now known as the “Milking Devon.” Much to everyone’s surprise, the once-plentiful cattle had dwindled to only a few hard-to-find animals. The search for the Milking Devon raised a huge red flag for the agricultural community, showing that historically important breads were disappearing unnoticed. In response, the American Minor Breeds Conservancy — now known as The Livestock Conservancy — formed in 1977.
Another European breed that made a considerable impact in North America is the Heritage Shorthorn, sometimes called the “Milking Shorthorn” or “Native Shorthorn.” Originally, the breed was known as “Durham,” since it was developed in Durham, England. It was one of the first “improved” breeds of livestock in the 1700s, and certainly one of the most influential cattle breeds in history. Heritage Shorthorns were among the first to have an established herd book, which began in 1822. It became the most popular breed of cattle in England, and animals were sent around the world to establish breeding stock and help improve existing herds. The original Shorthorn was valued for its utility as a meat and milking animal, as well as making an excellent ox, often recommended as the best choice for a novice drover because of its even temperament.
One of the most famous cattle of all time was a Heritage Shorthorn known as “the Durham Ox.” This remarkable animal was calved in 1796, and reached a weight of over 3,500 pounds. He traveled throughout England and Scotland in a custom carriage pulled by four horses.
During the mid-20th century, there was a push to focus on meat production in Shorthorns. As a result, the Beef Shorthorn breed was developed as other cattle breeds were incorporated into the Heritage Shorthorn population. However, a dedicated group of breed enthusiasts fought against this idea. They declined to incorporate other breeds into their production programs, insisting Heritage Shorthorns were fine in their historic form. Today, Heritage Shorthorns are critically endangered, and the breed is managed separately from Beef Shorthorns.
I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention an influential dairy breed as we walk through historic cattle breeds in North America. The “Oreo cookie cow” of the dairy world is the beautiful Dutch Belted breed of the Netherlands. These cattle first arrived in the United States through an importation made by the U.S. Consul of Holland, D.H. Haight, in 1838. The cattle were such a visual delight that P.T. Barnum then imported others for his circus. The breed was touted as “rare and aristocratic.” After their stint in the circus, Barnum moved the animals to a farm in New York.
Breed Diversity for a Bright Future
Cattle culture in North America is still a major force in our agricultural systems, and it’s through breed diversity that the future can be assured. It’s imperative that we conserve a wide range of breeds — each of which provides characteristics and adaptations that are unique and useful — to maintain a resilient population. With each breed that disappears, so do irreplaceable genes, some of which have been adapting on this continent for 500 years.
I’ve mentioned only a few of the many breeds found in North America, but 2021 is a year to celebrate them all. There’s a cow in every shape, color, and size conceivable. Do your homework, and you’ll find a breed that suits your needs.
Jeannette Beranger is the senior program manager for The Livestock Conservancy. She maintains rare breeds on her North Carolina farm, and is the co-author of An Introduction to Heritage Breeds.
Learn more about raising cattle in our online workshop “Adding a Cow to Your Homestead,” with The Livestock Conservancy’s Jeannette Beranger. This introductory workshop covers the basics of raising cattle, including breed selection, purchasing, infrastructure, feeding, breeding, milking, and processing. “Adding a Cow to Your Homestead” is part of our “Livestock” course. Check it out at Mother Earth News Fair.